I will never taste kimchi as good as my grandma’s.
It had the perfect proportion of crushed red pepper, garlic freshly ground in the mortar and pestle by her favorite little apprentice (me), and Napa cabbage she had handpicked at the grocery store earlier in the day. It also came with my grandma’s rich storytelling — captivating tales of resilience, war, and luck. These stories brought my boring history textbooks to life; they rooted my own family within that larger context; and solidified my admiration for refugee mothers.
My grandma’s kimchi was a memento of North Korea. Its recipe had survived my grandparents’ escape to South Korea, through dark forests hiding even darker truths: corpses, attack dogs, bullets, and other families desperately on the run.
As my “halmuni” (“grandma” in Korean) cooked throughout my childhood, pieces of our family history would be revealed to me on the kitchen floor of our Flushing, Queens house, where I lived with my two younger siblings and parents. My grandma had come to Flushing from South Korea to fill in the gaps created by my parent’s work schedule and helped raise us. Once my mom finished her full-time shifts as a nurse at the VA Hospital, she would head to East Harlem to help out my dad at their jewelry store. They worked six days a week.
The youngest of three sisters and a brother, Kim San Ok was born in 1925 during Japan’s rule in a city called Unggi, located in the extreme northeast corner of the Korean peninsula close to Russia. “I hated school,” she would always tell me. She got her best lessons by simply watching her mom cook, just as I would learn generations later by watching her. Those kitchen lessons provided a delicious break from all my schoolwork.
At a young age, my grandmother learned learned how to make songpyun (rice cakes traditionally served on Chuseok or Korean Thanksgiving), mandoo (her amazing dumplings, which would later enjoy their spotlight in New York Magazine), and gajami sikhae (spicy fermented flatfish, a North Korean specialty that’s not so easy to come by in the U.S., where only 186 North Korean refugees have settled since the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, per Vice News).
“Your mom also taught you how to make this kimchi?,” I’d ask.
“Of course!,” she’d exclaim proudly.
She would take each head of cabbage, dripping red with seasoning, and carefully fill up four glass jars reserved for her kimchi. The batch we would eat soonest would remain on our kitchen floor to ferment to a ripe, crunchy brightness; the other three jars would go in the fridge until it was their turn to ferment. In the winter, she would dig a hole by the roots of the pine tree in our front yard and store the kimchi there.
At age 15, she wed (via arranged marriage) my wealthy grandfather (the scion of a dried fish business), and she relocated over 400 miles south to his hometown of Wonsan. Over the next five years, they had three children, and the Soviet Union came to occupy northern Korea up to the 38th Parallel (later designated as the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone), across which the U.S. Army stood ground — the two foreign forces having liberated the Korean peninsula from Japan during World War II. Both sets of my great-grandparents worried for the future of the newly growing family in a Communist economy, and they ordered my grandparents to go south. The rest of her family never left.
“As soon as a baby cried, we would hear the attack dogs barking and shots firing. So I’d hold your aunt tightly onto my back and keep her quiet as we made our way across the mountains at night time. We would hide among the trees during the day,” my grandma would tell me.
These were the stories I grew up on. And as a kid, I sensed that I would one day document those kimchi sessions. My grandma’s resilience and her cooking skills, honed over half a century, inspired me to explore the lives and kitchens of other immigrant and refugee grandmothers and applaud them as the rightful queens of the food world. That’s how my video and live event series Cooking with Granny came to be. If anyone deserves the spotlight in the kitchen, it’s these women, who’ve fought for the long-term security of their families as they quietly cooked for their children and grandchildren.
“I didn’t know I would never return, never see my family again,” Halmuni, now 93, has said throughout the years. “Why was I the only one who made it out? If only I could go back to Unggi, I would look for my nieces and nephews.”
My grandma made the trek to South Korea in 1945, and three years later, the Soviet Union and U.S. formally split the peninsula into two separate countries. The Korean War of 1950-1953 resulted in the establishment of the DMZ, where North and South Korean soldiers continue to stand in perpetual conflict. Since April, North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, has met with South Korean President Moon Jae In and U.S. President Donald Trump to international surprise with idealized goals for denuclearization and peace. This raised new hope (though mostly skepticism) for a reunification of the two Koreas amid the family chatter happening in New York, Busan, and on Kakao Talk, the popular Korean chat app.
While Korea’s reunification remains tenuous, and her ties to her family will likely stay broken, my grandma preserved something special from our pre-war Korean heritage. And, as my grandma’s health continues to deteriorate, I’ll make sure that her kimchi, and the stories around it, will continue to last for generations to come.